Police check identity documents after halting a distribution of food, water, and clothing in an industrial area of Calais shortly after midnight on June 30, 2017.

© 2017 Mail on Sunday/Philip Ide

(Paris) – French police in Calais routinely abuse asylum seekers and other migrants, Human Rights Watch said today. The French authorities turn a blind eye to the widespread reports of the abuse.

The 40-page report, “‘Like Living in Hell’: Police Abuses Against Child and Adult Migrants in Calais,” finds that police forces in Calais, particularly the French riot police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS), routinely use pepper spray on child and adult migrants while they are sleeping or in other circumstances in which they pose no threat. Police also regularly spray or confiscate sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, and have sometimes used pepper spray on migrants’ food and water, apparently to press them to leave the area. Such acts violate the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment as well as international standards on police conduct, which call for police to use force only when it is unavoidable, and then only with restraint, in proportion to the circumstances, and for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.

“It is reprehensible for police to use pepper spray on children and adults who are asleep or peacefully going about their day,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, Human Rights Watch’s France director. “When police destroy or take migrants’ blankets, shoes, or food, they demean their profession as well as harm people whose rights they’ve sworn to uphold.”

The report is based on interviews with more than 60 asylum seekers and other migrants in and around Calais and Dunkerque, including 31 unaccompanied children, in June and July 2017. Human Rights Watch also met with the deputy prefect for Calais and officials in the Interior Ministry in Paris, and with numerous lawyers, social workers, and other staff and volunteers of nongovernmental organizations operating in Calais.

After police halted an evening distribution of food and clothing, three officers stop and question a boy who had paused to change his shoes before returning to the wooded area where he and other migrants spend the night, May 2017. 

© 2017 Help Refugees

Over 400 asylum seekers and other migrants, most from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, are living on the streets and in wooded areas in and around Calais. As many as 200 are unaccompanied children. At least 300 more adults and children, Iraqi Kurds as well as Afghans and other nationalities, live in migrant camps in and around Dunkerque and Grande-Synthe, east of Calais.

The deputy prefect for Calais vehemently denied charges of police abuse, describing them as slander, but Human Rights Watch findings are based on consistent and detailed accounts by nearly every asylum seeker and migrant interviewed.

Human Rights Watch also found that local authorities have responded to the return of migrants to Calais in increasing numbers by impeding their access to food, water, and other basic necessities. A court found in March that local authorities efforts to bar distributions by aid groups amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. The French ombudsman (Défenseur des droits) has also criticized these and other measures by local authorities, concluding that they contribute to “inhuman living conditions” for asylum seekers and migrants in Calais.

A second court ruling, issued on June 26, directed authorities to provide migrants with access to drinking water, toilets, and facilities for showering and washing clothes, with 10 days to comply. Authorities appealed the ruling on July 6. The appeal is scheduled to be heard on July 28.

Seventeen-year-old Biniam T. told Human Rights Watch, “If they catch us when we are sleeping, they will spray us and take all of our stuff. Every two or three days they do this. They’ll come and take our blankets.”

Asylum seekers and other migrants in Calais stand in line at a late-night distribution of food, blankets, and clothing, March 2017. 

© 2017 Private

Aid workers described one occasion when gendarmes bearing rifles surrounded them and multiple occasions when riot police otherwise forcibly blocked migrants’ access to aid workers and knocked food out of the workers hands.

When aid workers have tried to photograph or film these acts, police have at times seized their phones for short periods, deleting or examining the contents without permission and without legal basis.

Until the end of October 2016, a sprawling, squalid shantytown on the edge of the city held as many as 10,000 asylum seekers and migrants, including many unaccompanied children, and municipal authorities in Calais speak frequently of their determination not to allow a migrant camp to be re-established on the city’s fringes.

Local authorities have particularly opposed calls to establish a migrant shelter or an asylum office in Calais, contending that it would encourage more migrants to travel to northern France. During a June 23, 2017 visit to Calais, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb echoed these sentiments.

At the same time, President Emmanuel Macron has promised a humane approach to refugees, including reforming the asylum system. At an European Union summit in Trieste, Italy, earlier in July, he said, “[T]he women and the men who first were coming from Syria, today are coming from Eritrea, or from many other countries, and who are fighting for freedom, must be welcomed in Europe, and especially in France. Therefore we will obviously do our part in this fight.”

Local and national authorities should immediately and unequivocally direct police to adhere to international standards on the use of force and to refrain from conduct that interferes with aid delivery, subject to appropriate disciplinary action for abuse of authority or other misconduct, Human Rights Watch said. In particular, police should be instructed not to use pepper spray on migrants in any circumstances in which nonviolent means would be effective in achieving a legitimate purpose.

The Interior Ministry should also urgently remove obstacles to refugee protection, including by either establishing an asylum office in Calais or facilitating applications in existing offices. The ministry should work with appropriate agencies and humanitarian groups to provide accommodation as soon as possible to all asylum applicants and to arrange emergency accommodation for any undocumented migrant without shelter in Calais.

Local and national authorities should ensure that unaccompanied migrant children have access to child protection services, including shelters with sufficient capacity and adequate staffing.

“Authorities should send a clear message that police harassment or other abuse of power will not be tolerated,” Jeannerod said. “The government should make sure that migrants are protected and able to apply for asylum.”